European Drama

Since the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans, drama has played an essential role in European societies. While sometimes falling in and out of favor with the twists and turns of history, European drama has remained one of the continent's most robust literary forms. From Shakespeare (1564-1616) to Molière (1622-1673), many examples of European drama are among the most significant works in the western literary canon.

Get started Sign up for free
European Drama European Drama

Create learning materials about European Drama with our free learning app!

  • Instand access to millions of learning materials
  • Flashcards, notes, mock-exams and more
  • Everything you need to ace your exams
Create a free account

Millions of flashcards designed to help you ace your studies

Sign up for free

Convert documents into flashcards for free with AI!

Table of contents

    European Drama: A Definition

    European drama generally refers to drama written and produced in Europe. It includes various styles, subject matter, and time periods, beginning in ancient Greece around 600 BCE and continuing to the present day.

    A History of European Drama

    The history of European drama spans over 2,500 years, beginning in the fifth century BCE in ancient Greece. Standout examples of authors and plays can be found at the end of the article.

    Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire

    The western theatrical tradition began in ancient Greece sometime in the fifth century BCE. In fact, the words "drama" and "theatre" come from Greek roots.

    European drama, Ancient Greek theatre, StudySmarterFig. 1: Greece was the birthplace of European drama.

    Theatre was an important part of many aspects of life in ancient Greek culture, particularly in Athens. Here, the key dramatic genres of comedy and tragedy were established, and some of the first known dramatists, including Aeschylus (525-456 BCE), Sophocles (495-406 BCE), and Euripides (480-406 BCE), began writing plays.

    Ancient Greece also produced the earliest surviving theoretical texts written about drama, most notably Aristotle's (384-322 BCE) much-studied Poetics (335 BCE).

    Theatre was also an important part of life and culture in ancient Rome. As the Roman Empire expanded in the third century BCE, it came into contact with Greek drama. From there, drama spread throughout Europe and to England.

    Although there is no shortage of death in ancient Greek drama, characters very rarely die onstage. Rather, the death happens out of sight of the audience and is explained by a messenger or through other dialogue. One notable exception occurs in Ajax, a tragedy written in the 5th century BCE by Sophocles. In the play, the title character commits suicide by falling on his sword, seemingly in full view of the audience. However, there is much debate among scholars as to how the scene was actually staged.

    On the other hand, the Romans were known for their bloody spectacles, even staging executions as elaborate theatrical events.

    Medieval Theatre

    In the first centuries of the Common Era, the Western Roman Empire fell out of power, and the Byzantine Empire, based in Constantinople, rose. Theatre mainly consisted of traveling bands of performers, including jesters, acrobats, storytellers, and more during this time. However, there was not much in the way of staged productions, and the Church frowned upon these nomadic performers.

    By the early Middle Ages, the Church began to control a large portion of the era's theatrical activity. Liturgical plays and church services that included dramatizations of biblical stories became popular.

    By the twelfth century, theatre had begun to spread outside of the Church, and certain works were translated into vernacular language and performed by common people. Of particular importance were the cycles of so-called Mystery plays. These cycles consisted of sometimes dozens of plays, still biblical in nature and inspiration, but with more entertainment value, including comedy and villains within their stories.

    Another essential theatrical form in the Middle Ages was morality plays. In morality plays, the protagonist generally represents humanity as a whole and interacts with personified vices and virtues to impart moral lessons.

    The best-known of these morality plays, called Everyman, dates from the 16th century. The title character, Everyman, who represents all of humanity, meets Death on his judgment day and learns that one friend can accompany him into the afterlife. Throughout the play, Everyman encounters a variety of characters, including Fellowship, Kindred, Goods, and Beauty, and asks them to join him. However, only Good Deeds agrees to go with Everyman on his final journey.

    Italian Commedia dell’arte and the Renaissance

    The end of the Middle Ages and the dawn of the Renaissance brought significant changes to European drama. Beginning in Italy in the 14th century and slowly spreading throughout Europe, the Renaissance was marked by a growing interest in the literature and philosophy of antiquity, including the drama of ancient Greece. The weakening of the Catholic Church, including the Protestant Reformation and ensuing Counter-Reformation measures, resulted in new restrictions on religious drama and art as the Church attempted to maintain unified messaging. Consequently, drama became more secular.

    One important development was the Commedia dell'arte in Italy. Commedia dell'arte troupes traveled across Europe, improvising popular shows for hundreds of years and included some of European theatre's first professional female actors.

    Commedia dell'arte was a type of professional theatre that originated in Italy and gained popularity throughout Europe from the 16th-18th centuries. This form of drama relied on stock characters immediately recognizable by specific masks and loose plots that professional actors then improvised.

    European drama, Commedia dell'arte mask, StudySmarterFig. 2: Commedia dell'arte used easily recognizable masks.

    During the Renaissance, drama also exploded in importance in Spain and France, and Queen Elizabeth I's appreciation for theatre fueled a proliferation of dramatic activity in Elizabethan England.

    However, Britain also struggled with Puritan opposition to theatrical performances. In 1642, the Puritan Church banned all dramatic activity in London. This ban lasted for eighteen years until the Restoration. When the Restoration period began in 1660, racy comedies, known now as Restoration comedies, grew in popularity.

    The time in England between the execution of King Charles I in 1649 and the crowning of Charles II in 1660 is known as the Interregnum. Charles I was beheaded following years of civil war between his followers, known as royalists, and the parliamentarians led by Oliver Cromwell, who wanted to end England's rule by absolute monarchy.

    Many members of the Parlement were also Puritans; therefore, Puritan values began to spread throughout England during the Interregnum. Theatrical activity, in particular, was considered immoral and banned in London by the Puritan Church.

    Romanticism and Realism

    By the 19th century, drama was enjoyed throughout Europe. At the beginning of the century, Romanticism and melodrama became the most popular theatrical forms.

    Romanticism was a literary movement that emphasized strong emotions, an idealization of nature, and universal themes such as love and loss.

    Melodrama is a type of theatre that uses exaggerated, sensationalized plots to entertain and create a strong reaction from the audience.

    These types of drama generally relied on elaborate staging effects to impress audiences and appeal to the various classes in growing urban populations.

    By the mid-19th century, Realism flourished, starting in Russia and spreading throughout Europe. Realist playwrights rejected the theatrical conventions of the past in favor of realistic settings and costumes and the use of everyday language.

    Realism was a literary movement in which writers depicted realistic characters and situations and frequently used everyday language.

    This was a significant departure from the theatre of the past, and the work of playwrights such as Norwegian Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906), Swedish August Strindberg (1849-1912), and Russian Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) marked a huge turning point in European drama. Their work was deeply psychological and explored various themes previously unheard of on the stage.

    The European playwrights of the 19th century and their exploration of Realist and Naturalist drama would inspire the first generation of great American playwrights in the United States.

    The Modern Era

    Moving into the 20th century and modernity, European drama continued to be heavily influenced by the literary movements of Realism and Naturalism. However, with the advent of Modernism, theatrical productions gradually became more experimental and began to splinter into various sub-movements. These included Symbolism, with playwrights such as Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949), and Expressionism, popularized by the Sweedish August Strindberg (1849-1912).

    Symbolism was a literary movement in European drama that began in France at the end of the nineteenth century. The Symbolist movement produced highly-stylized, non-realistic works of theatre in rebellion against the realistic settings of Realism and Naturalism.

    Expressionism was a literary movement in European drama that developed in Germany in the early twentieth century. Similar to Symbolism, Expressionist works of theatre were often unrealistic, and they used exaggerated setting and staging elements to visualize the characters' inner experiences.

    The first half of the 20th century was a time of great social and economic change in Europe and worldwide. World War I, in particular, had a significant impact on European culture and literature. Modernism, the literary movement associated with the beginning of the 20th century, often took a decidedly pessimistic turn as writers grappled with the horrors of war and the realities of expanding industrialization.

    Literary movements in European drama reflected the Modernist urge toward experimentation and explored controversial subjects previously unheard of in drama. New theories of drama, such as Bertolt Brecht's (1898-1956) conception of Epic Theatre, moved away from existing purely to entertain an audience and began to challenge viewers with complex themes and sharp social commentaries.

    The end of World War II in 1945 marked the beginning of the contemporary literary period. Drama continued to function primarily as a form of social analysis and critique while becoming more experimental and employing new dramatic techniques.

    In France, Antonin Artaud (1896-1948) became a significant figure in the Theatre of Cruelty movement. This theatrical form intended to shock and stress audiences with an onslaught of movement, light, and sound. Artaud's work and theories influenced a number of other European playwrights, including the German Peter Weiss (1916-1982) and his play The Investigation (1965), which examined the aftermath of the Holocaust.

    Another key post-World War II movement in European drama was Theatre of the Absurd, a term coined by Martin Esslin (1918-2002) in 1961. Theatre of the Absurd dealt with themes of existentialism and expressed the belief that life was essentially meaningless and absurd through nonsensical language and nonlinear storylines. This movement was exemplified by the plays of the Irish Samuel Beckett (1906-1989), particularly his modern classic Waiting for Godot (1953).

    Moving into the 21st century, European drama has continued to diversify and embrace experimentation. The world of theatre has become more globalized and international, resulting in a greater variety of voices and experiences while continuing the trend of theatre as social commentary. Evolving technology has also influenced contemporary drama, with many playwrights taking advantage of video and audio advances to alter the performance experience.

    Characteristics of European Drama

    European drama is a diverse body of works that spans many centuries, countries, and cultures. Therefore, European drama as a whole shares very few common characteristics aside from having been written and produced within Europe. Fascinatingly, however, the classifications of comedy and tragedy have persisted from the era of ancient Greek drama. Many of the characteristics established to define these genres during the fourth century BCE remain useful for analyzing drama today.

    Characteristics of Comedies

    Comedic drama's primary purpose is to amuse. According to the Greek philosopher Aristotle, comedy depicts humanity's social nature and allows the audience to examine and improve society. Specific forms of comedy, such as satire and parody, might poke fun at society in more explicit ways, but the intention is inherent in all forms of the genre.

    Comedy generally deals with the stories of common people and low-stakes situations. Certain elements might be exaggerated for comedic effect, and silliness or absurdity is also typical. Frequent misunderstandings, such as disguises and mistaken identities, and jokes and other forms of wordplay play an essential role.

    Characteristics of Tragedies

    Tragedies held a vital place in ancient Greek culture because they created a feeling of catharsis in the audience, helping to purge the negative emotions of fear and pity. Therefore, they were typically regarded as a higher art form and discussed at greater lengths. The most essential element of tragedy, from ancient Greece to today, is the presence of a tragic hero. This hero has a tragic flaw, or hamartia, which he cannot escape and ultimately causes his ruin.

    The tragic flaw, or hamartia, is the thing that brings about the tragic hero's downfall. It should not necessarily be understood as a fault in the hero's character. In reality, it might be an accident, a poor decision, a mistake, or a wrongdoing.

    The plot of the tragedy follows the fall of the tragic hero, who is often fated to meet disaster from the start of the play. The subject matter is serious, and classic tragedies often focus on the upper classes and nobility. There is a good deal of suffering, be it physical, mental, or emotional, and the ending often, but not always, contains the death of one or more characters.

    Tragedy and Heroism in Modern European Drama

    Concepts of tragedy and heroism continue to be relevant to modern European drama. The biggest shift in tragedy moving into the modern era was changing the protagonist. Formerly, tragic heroes were usually nobility or members of the higher classes. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, however, playwrights such as Henrik Ibsen began to explore the tragedy of the common man.

    As theatre became more experimental, genres like tragedy and comedy became less clear-cut, and many works of modern European drama combined elements of comedy and tragedy to create more complex works.

    Examples of European Drama in Literature

    There are important examples of European drama in each key literary period.

    Ancient Greek Drama

    Ancient Greek drama is usually divided between comedy and tragedy. Many works of classical Greek drama are still read and performed to this day.

    Some key works of classical Greek comedy include:

    • Lysistrata (c. 411 BCE) by Aristophanes (444-386 BCE)
    • The Frogs (405 BCE) by Aristophanes

    Some key works of classical Greek tragedy include:

    Drama of the Middle Ages

    The key forms of drama in the Middle Ages were liturgical plays, mystery plays, and morality plays.

    • Liturgical plays told Biblical stories and were performed in Latin. One fascinating figure from this period was Hrosvitha (c. 935 – 973), a German woman considered the first known female playwright. Hrosvitha wrote an assortment of short dramas during her lifetime that were rediscovered and published in 1501.
    • Like liturgical plays, medieval mystery plays generally contained biblical subject matter, but they were performed in vernacular language, not Latin. Mystery plays were generally performed in cycles, sometimes consisting of dozens of plays. The best-known are the York Mystery Plays, a cycle of forty-eight plays dating from the 14th century.
    • The best-known medieval morality play, and perhaps the best-known dramatic work from the Middle Ages, is Everyman (1510). Like most morality plays, Everyman uses allegorical characters to explore the human condition and the idea of salvation.

    Renaissance and Elizabethan Drama

    The Renaissance and Elizabethan periods produced some of the most enduring works of European drama. A brief selection includes:

    • Much Ado About Nothing (1598-09) by William Shakespeare (England; 1564-1616)
    • Romeo and Juliet (1597) by William Shakespeare
    • The Jew of Malta (1589-90) by Charles Marlowe (England; 1564-1593)
    • Volpone (1605) by Ben Jonson (England; 1572-1637)
    • The Siege of Numantia (El cerco de Numancia; 1582) by Miguel de Cervantes (Spain; 1547-1616)
    • Madness in Valencia (Los Locos de Valencia; 1590-1595) Lope Felix de Vega (Spain; 1562-1613)
    • Tartuffe, or, the Impostor (Tartuffe ou L’Imposteur; 1664) by Molière (France; 1622-1673)
    • Phèdre (1677) by Jean Racine (France; 1639-1699)

    19th-Century European Drama

    The early part of the 19th century was dominated by melodrama and Romanticism, while Realism and Naturalism began to grow in popularity towards the end of the century. Some key works from this period include:

    • Faust (1829) by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (Germany; 1749-1832)
    • Hernani (1830) by Victor Hugo (France; 1802-1885)
    • Prometheus Unbound (1820) by Percy Bysshe Shelley (England; 1792-1822)
    • The Two Foscari: An Historical Tragedy (1821) by Lord Byron (England; 1788-1824)
    • The Power of Darkness (1886) by Leo Tolstoy (Russia; 1828-1910)
    • A Doll's House (1879) by Henrik Ibsen (Norway; 1828-1906)
    • The Importance of Being Earnest, A Trivial Comedy for Serious People (1895) by Oscar Wilde (Ireland; 1854-1900)

    20th-Century European Drama

    In the 20th century, European playwrights fully embraced Realism and Naturalism before beginning to explore more experimental literary movements. Some key dramatic works from this period include:

    • The Cherry Orchard (1903) by Anton Chekhov (Russia; 1860-1904)
    • The Ghost Sonata (1907) by August Strindberg (Sweden; 1849-1912)
    • Pygmalion (1913) by George Bernard Shaw (Ireland; 1856-1950)
    • Blood Wedding (1932) by Federico García Lorca (Spain; 1898-1936)
    • Waiting for Godot (1953) by Samuel Beckett (Ireland; 1906-1989)
    • The Hamletmachine (1977) by Heiner Müller (Germany; 1929-1995)

    Contemporary European Drama

    Contemporary European drama includes a diverse array of voices and topics:

    • Fireface (1997) by Marius von Mayenburg (Germany; 1972-present)
    • Peanuts (2000) by Fausto Paravidino (Italy; 1976-present)
    • born bad (2003) by debbie tucker green (England; 1989-present)
    • Invasion! (2006) by Jonas Hassen Khemiri (Sweden; 1978-present)
    • Grief is the Thing with Feathers (2018) by Edna Walsh (Ireland; 1967-present)

    European Drama - Key takeaways

    • European drama refers to works of dramatic literature written and produced in Europe by European playwrights.
    • European drama began in ancient Greece sometime in the fifth century BCE.
    • Drama took on many different forms throughout European history.
    • The dramatic genres of comedy and tragedy and their defining characteristics were established in the era of classical Greek theatre and remain relevant today.
    • Some key figures in European drama include Sophocles, William Shakespeare, Molière, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Samuel Beckett.
    Frequently Asked Questions about European Drama

    How did European drama originate?

    European drama originated in the theatrical traditions of ancient Greece sometime in the fifth century BCE.

    Where did European drama begin?

    European drama began in ancient Greece.

    When did Realism become the dominant form of European drama?

    Realism became the dominant form of European drama in the second half of the 19th century.

    How has European drama influenced the international canon of literature?

    European drama has produced some of the most significant literary works in the international canon of literature, such as the plays of William Shakespeare.

    How has European drama evolved over time?

    European drama has undergone significant changes over the centuries that have caused it to evolve into an ever-more-diverse body of work.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which was NOT a common form of theatre during the Middle Ages?

    True or false? A tragic hero’s flaw must be a personal failure or fault in the hero’s personality.

    What occupation of Aeschylus was memorialized on his gravestone? 


    Discover learning materials with the free StudySmarter app

    Sign up for free
    About StudySmarter

    StudySmarter is a globally recognized educational technology company, offering a holistic learning platform designed for students of all ages and educational levels. Our platform provides learning support for a wide range of subjects, including STEM, Social Sciences, and Languages and also helps students to successfully master various tests and exams worldwide, such as GCSE, A Level, SAT, ACT, Abitur, and more. We offer an extensive library of learning materials, including interactive flashcards, comprehensive textbook solutions, and detailed explanations. The cutting-edge technology and tools we provide help students create their own learning materials. StudySmarter’s content is not only expert-verified but also regularly updated to ensure accuracy and relevance.

    Learn more
    StudySmarter Editorial Team

    Team English Literature Teachers

    • 16 minutes reading time
    • Checked by StudySmarter Editorial Team
    Save Explanation Save Explanation

    Study anywhere. Anytime.Across all devices.

    Sign-up for free

    Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.

    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App

    The first learning app that truly has everything you need to ace your exams in one place

    • Flashcards & Quizzes
    • AI Study Assistant
    • Study Planner
    • Mock-Exams
    • Smart Note-Taking
    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App
    Sign up with Email

    Get unlimited access with a free StudySmarter account.

    • Instant access to millions of learning materials.
    • Flashcards, notes, mock-exams, AI tools and more.
    • Everything you need to ace your exams.
    Second Popup Banner